Note: Reproduced from http://niranamchurch.com/articles2.htm
6th January is a very auspicious day for the Orthodox Churches. In the church tradition, this day is known as ‘Epiphany’ whose Syriac equivalent is ‘Denaha’. Baptism of Jesus is remembered on this day. The feast of Denaha has an important place in the liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Churches. Many Churches-like the Armenian Orthodox Church-celebrate Nativity of Christ and Epiphany together on 6th January. The word “epiphany” comes from two Greek words, epi and phainen, and can variously mean, “to shine upon”, “to reveal” or “manifest”. This day is also known as theophany, which means ‘manifestation of God’.
The word ‘epiphaino’ (and it’s variants) appears in the New Testament mainly in two contexts. In Luke 1:79, Titus 2:11 and Titus 3:4 it means, “to shine upon”, “to appear” or “manifest”. In Luke 1, Zachariah prophesies that his newborn son John the Baptist will give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on [epiphaino] those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace (Luke 1:77-79). In 1 Timothy 6:14, 2 Timothy 4:1,8, and Titus 2:13, this word is used in context of the revealing and appearing of Jesus at the end of time.
In the early days of Christianity, Nativity of Christ and His baptism was celebrated together on 6th January. It was only at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), 25th December was declared as the date for the celebration of Christmas, separating the Nativity from the Baptism of Christ. The theory behind 25th December being the date of Christmas is like this: that day is the winter solstice in Northern hemisphere on which length of the day starts increasing. Pagans in the ancient Roman Empire celebrated 25th December as the “Birth of the Invincible Sun” as it was generally believed that the sun who dies during the winter solstice rises from death thereafter. It is generally believed that date of Nativity was fixed on 25th December in order to override and subdue pagan feasts and practices dedicated to the Winter Solstice, because at that time Christians also used to continue their observance of these pagan festivities. Since the date of the Epiphany was more ancient, and was of primary importance as a liturgical feast, it was not possible to move it, while the secondary and later addition of the nativity could be moved without great offence. (Armenia however, did not adopt this change for the simple fact that there were no such pagan practices left in Armenia in the 5th century allowing them to remain faithful to the traditions of their forefathers. To this day, Armenians have continued to celebrate the Nativity on 6th January along with the Epiphany).
God has been revealing himself to the universe for ages through his prophets and high priests. But all these were only partial and his complete revelation came through Jesus Christ, his Son. In the Old Testament times, God was not identified or revealed as Trinity, though indirect references can be found. It was at the time of baptism of Jesus in River Jordan, the Trinity was revealed to the world explicitly. This is the importance of Epiphany. Heb. 1:1 reads “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son”. Son is the complete manifestation of God the father, the radiance of His glory and exact representation of His being (Heb. 1:3). The greatest and perhaps the simplest revelation God made through his son is that ‘as God became man, man can also became God’. St Athanasius, one of the Apostolic Fathers, first taught this idea. He pronounced: ‘God became man so that man may become God’. This is the message that Christmas and Epiphany is bringing to the believers.
The ultimate goal of Orthodox spirituality is this divination of human beings. We may doubtful that whether man may ever be able to become God-like. The answer that oriental orthodoxy gives is a big YES. The duty and goal of a believer should be become God. Whether we would be able to achieve that goal is a different thing. Saints are the people who approached more towards this goal. Orthodox theology treats spirituality not as an impossible probability but an infinite possibility. In Orthodox tradition, the process of growing in spirit towards Godliness is termed as Theosis. Through our good deeds, prayers, fasting and participation in the Holy Communion, we are striving hard towards theosis. St Paul reminds us: “not that I’ve already obtained all this, or already have been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philipians 3:12).
In contrast to the Orthodox tradition of remembering the baptism of Jesus, western Churches (Roman Catholicism and the Reformation churches) remembers the visit of the three wise men on this day. They focus on God’s revelation of Jesus’ identity to the magi (wise men) on Epiphany Day as it represents the revelation of God to the gentiles. The most characteristic feature of the Orthodox day of Epiphany is the sanctifying of waters by invoking the Spirit that appeared in the form of a dove over Christ at the time of His Baptism. The believers receive sanctified water at the end of the special service of Epiphany and with it sanctify their homes, gardens, and other possessions while some preserve it for the entire year partaking of it at times of illness and other personal or family adversities. The prayers of Orthodox Churches on the Epiphany day are reinforcement of the sacred relation between man and nature. May this year’s Epiphany day observance enable us to grow in spirit and reciprocate to God’s manifestation to humanity.